The Stories that Lie Between Book and Reader

Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob:

“It’s hard not to wish that everyone – my friends, my family members, writers I know and don’t know – would keep a Book of Books. What better way to get to know them? You could find out so much if you could get a read on where other people’s curiosities lie and where their knowledge is found: What are you reading? And what have you read? And what do you want to read next? Not knowing the answers to these questions means you miss a vital part of a persona, the real story, the other stories – not the ones in their books, but the stories that lie between book and reader, the connections that bind the two together.”

I’ve tracked my reading publicly for nearly 20 years, on Goodreads since 2008 and before that on a hand-coded HTML page on my personal website. I can’t imagine not tracking the books I read now. It’s second nature to record what I’m reading, when I started and when I finished. And to look back on what I’ve read and look forward to what I might read next.

Between book and reader

For Pamela Paul, her Book of Books (aka Bob) is meaningful and private because that’s what reading was for her. “Reading time became my time and place, another dimension where events operated by my own set of rules. … What you read revealed what you cared about and feared, what you hoped for because you didn’t have it, what questions you wanted answered without publicly unmasking your ignorance. I guarded this information fiercely.”

When she first wrote about Bob in the New York Times Book Review along with a photo of Bob’s first page, “I had revealed my inner life in a very public way,” she writes, “but at least, I reasoned, I’d done so in a safe place, among fellow readers.”

There is an element of intimacy to my Goodreads page (which is a very safe space, especially compared to many other social media), but it’s the kind of intimacy which I’ve long been comfortable with online. The exposure is indirect. It’s an easier, more obscure way to show what I’m interested in, how I’m feeling, what I’m concerned with. It lets me avoid saying something outright in a blog post, Facebook status, or Instagram caption. But it’s also true that some books I read have nothing to do with my life or have no impact on me.

A fuzzy kind of picture emerges from the sum of the books I read. My reading says something about me, but only as much as, say, photos do. What my home looks like, what kind of clothes I wear, how I wear my hair. These are ways to reveal a portion of my identity, but not any deep truths. They aren’t enough to tell whether we’d get along, whether I’d be a good friend, or what I believe in.

There might be such a thing as knowing too much about what other people read. It’s possible to place too much importance on books. Many very wonderful people read one type of book or only the most popular books or no books at all. Books are special, but there are so many things we consume that help make us who we are. I have the privilege and luxury of making reading a priority in my life. What you read or don’t read doesn’t define you or reveal some deep truth about you. It’s just one aspect of every complicated human being.

Reading Widely, Deeply, and Not At All

Reflecting on the books I’ve read gets me thinking about why I read so much. There are plenty of people who read much more than I do and plenty of people who couldn’t care less about books. But I’m perhaps a bit greedy. I spend so much time reading books, reading about books, and wishing I were reading a book instead of whatever else it is I’m doing. I can’t seem to get enough.

Recently I’ve been a bit more selective of what books I start and finish because I realized that, in addition to having a large backlog, every year I find more books to read than I can possibly get through in a year. I will definitely die before I can get to all the books I’d like to read (and reread), so I need to make the most of the time I have left. And I wonder about other ways of being a reader, about the virtues of perhaps not reading widely.

Reading widely (1)

An example of my excesses, after a trip to the library.

Reading widely

Why do I read so much? So many reasons. I love being surprised or thrilled by a turn of events or a turn of phrase. Being taken into another time and place, a different person’s head. Learning about things I never would have known or understood otherwise. I love the deep exploration of character and motivation and conflict and resolution. I love that books make me think about things I never think about on my own.

But there are other reasons. Reading is a way to do something “productive” and “good” while avoiding other things that are perhaps hard and perhaps more worthwhile. It’s an escape, in more ways than one. I read because I want to write, although that makes no sense because after a certain point, only more writing can help you get better at writing, not more reading.

Maybe one day, if I read enough books, I’ll finally decide that I don’t need to write anything after all. That anything I have to say has already been said by others who said it better than I could. The time I free up by not writing might be enough to one day get to all the books.

Reading widely (2)

Another example of my excesses, before going on vacation.

Reading deeply

In “The Case Against Reading Everything” at The Walrus, Jason Guriel shares a refreshingly contrary perspective on the notion of reading widely, specifically for aspiring writers:

“The real problem with telling young writers to fan out across genres and forms is that it doesn’t help them find a voice. If anything, it’s antivoice. Learning the craft of writing isn’t about hopping texts like hyperlinks. It’s about devotion and obsession. It’s about lingering too long in some beloved book’s language, about steeping yourself in someone else’s style until your consciousness changes colour. … It’s going embarrassingly, unfashionably all in.”

But there’s more to do it than the development of a voice, Guriel argues. There’s also an apparent problem with the quality of the work that’s out there:

“The call to ‘read widely’ is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices.”

I feel bad for young readers and writers who are expected to decide what is worthy of their attention. How do you know? I don’t know. Is he just talking about not reading Fifty Shades of Grey or self-help books? Relying on the opinions of critics and friends and reviewers isn’t enough. How does a reader separate the “undeserving” from the “worthwhile”?

A post at Anecdotal Evidence gives some practical advice for reading deeply. The notion is that choosing the ten best books you’ve read and rereading them carefully and thoroughly, to the exclusion of all other books, will teach you what is good, develop your taste, and make you a better reader. That list of ten books will vary hugely for everyone — at least I hope it does.

Picking ten best books for myself seems like an impossible task, but perhaps the point is really that any ten books would do the trick.

Reading variety

There is a sour point in avoiding the “variety of voices.” There are political implications of reading only what you like or only the work of people like you. Guriel addresses the issue in this way:

“Most people urging you to read widely probably have a hard time ranging outside their comfort zones. There’s no doubt that, in the political realm, we need more connection with those we disagree with. But for the most part, ‘read widely’ belongs to a class of expression that’s good to be heard saying. … In my experience, only a minority of writers like to chase their Leslie Jamison with some Conrad Black, or their Yvor Winters with some Roxane Gay.”

If many writers don’t follow a piece of advice, it doesn’t follow that the advice is bad. Doesn’t everyone have a hard time going outside their comfort zone? And “connection with those we disagree with” is not necessarily more influential than what we read (and consume, TV and film especially) in relation to how we see the world and what we think of people who aren’t like us. It’s a bit facile to dismiss the political importance of what we (and aspiring writers) read.

I appreciate how Jana Marie expressed the point in a recent Sunday letter:

“I’m not here to tell you to read more … No, my suggestion would be to read the same amount as you do now, but just to read more widely. To wander into an unfamiliar section of the bookstore. To get your news from other sites. To follow those whose voices are unrepresented (or under-represented) in your feed.”

Reading a variety of voices and opinions is important. Moving beyond what school or popular culture tells us is good and being open to writers and settings and ideas that might seem foreign. And learning how to make up our own minds about it all.

Reading anything

I belong to a couple of large Facebook writing groups. It’s kind of alarming how many times aspiring writers ask questions that make me wonder if they even read books. Do publishers accept books written in the first person? Will my manuscript get rejected if my character has [some random trait]? Can I alternate points of view between two characters?

I hold back from joining these conversations (and am increasingly wondering why I submit myself to them at all) because there are many other people who jump in and quote Stephen King at them.

(Most people like the If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot“ quote, but I prefer If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” See also.)

What I want to say, though, is: read 5 books in your genre of choice and then answer your own damn question.

I’m clearly a horrible and unhelpful person. But why do people who don’t read books want to write one? Why would you write a book that you expect people to buy if you won’t even borrow a few from your local library?

It’s quite possible that the people asking these questions are Russian bots or trolls who hate writers. I really can’t rule out those possibilities, so I should just ignore them and move on, right? The internet is made of things that should be ignored.

Not reading at all

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading The Artist’s Way. One of the practices Julia Cameron recommends is a week of reading deprivation. No reading? No reading.

“For most blocked creatives, Cameron says, “reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own. Ouch. That hits close to home, and I don’t really consider myself blocked.

So what does reading deprivation achieve?

“It is a paradox that by emptying lives our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well. Without distractions, we are once again thrust into the sensory world. … We are cast into our inner silence. Our reward will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely.” 

I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t read anything for a week. There’s so much I could do, so much I would want to do, but in reality I would binge watch Netflix and listen to podcasts and paint my nails and spend hours and hours and hours on Instagram. I’m not sure I know how not to consume something. But Cameron warns against this precise problem:

“Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some of us begin to immediately fill with new words — long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static. In practicing reading deprivation, we need to cast a watchful eye on these other pollutants. They poison the well.” 

I almost achieved reading deprivation on vacation last year, unintentionally, but I don’t think that’s what Cameron means. For me, the highlight of taking vacation is having more time to read. The highlight of my weekends is having more time to read. So not reading at all? For a single week? It seems impossible, which makes the challenge even more intriguing.

My Favourite Books of 2017

The end of the year is upon us, accompanied by the necessary reflection on the books read over the last revolution around the sun, in particular the favourite books of the year. It was a good reading year for me. I read as voraciously as I did last year: just about the same number of books, but fewer pages. (Thank you Goodreads for keeping track of these things, via my 2017 in books and annual statistics.)

Some of my favourite books from 2017

Some of them

 

My 17 favourite books this year

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell. An exploration of the life, times, and literary afterlife of Michel de Montaigne, the original essayist.This is first on the list because I spent more time with it than any other book on this list. Partway through I finally splurged and bought the complete essays, which I may or may not start working through in 2018.

A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland. Part memoir, part academic-ish study of silence and solitude. Arguably, this book was the one that really kicked off my current fascination with books on this subject.

Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton. This is kind of mostly about gardening but it was still a wonderful read about seeking time alone.

Eat Sleep Sit, Kaoru Nonomura. A memoir of one year at a strict Zen temple in Japan. It removed all romanticism from how I thought of monks and the ascetic way of life.

Upstream, Mary Oliver. Wonderful essays about poetry, nature, writing, and life.

The Hate U GiveAngie Thomas. A wonderful YA novel about a young black woman who sees her best friend shot to death by the police. It’s emotional and funny and political and heartbreaking.

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, Haemin Sunim. Normally a book I would never admit to liking, this was a case of the right book at the right time.

Hourglass, Dani Shapiro. A kind of inexplicable memoir about, like the cover says, marriage and time. Beautifully written.

Outline, Rachel Cusk. A novel told in conversations, strangely compelling and fascinating.

Transit, Rachel Cusk. The follow-up to Outline, which I read very shortly afterward and which did not disappoint.

SapiensYuval Noah Harari. A fascinating exploration of how homo sapiens made it.

All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg. A novel told in vignettes about a woman alone, without partner or child, coming to terms with herself. It took me by surprise.

American PrimitiveMary Oliver. Poems about nature, humanity, and the universe.

300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso. A tiny but smart book. Essays distilled down to their barest essence.

Delights and Shadows, Ted Kooser. More poetry. I read a lot of poetry this year (for me).

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro. Lots of thoughts here.

One Hundred Days of Solitude, Jane Dobisz. I read this very quickly over 24 hours around Christmas, and I thought it was so lovely. I’m not sure how much that was because it was so much better than a similar book I’d finished a few days before, Consolations of the Forestwhich was not what I’d hoped.

Some random notes

Because I can’t limit myself to just favourite books, whatever exactly that means. I enjoyed some really fun novels this year: StartupPublic Relations, Grace and the Fever, Kissing Ted Callahan, SourdoughMade for Love was also fun but in a totally zany way. In a Lonely Place was moody and dark and perfect. I was sorry that both Commonwealth and Swimming Lessons featured the tired story of the young woman giving up her life to an older male writer. I read a lot of poetry. I re-read several favourite books: a few Barbara Pyms, The Hating Game, The Restraint of Beasts, The Writing LifeBearMansfield Park. I read a lot more about religion and spirituality this year, which is unusual for me. I read several great books about writing, in addition to Still WritingThe Art of Fiction, Reading Like a Writer, Draft No. 4, Six Memos for the Next MillenniumI also finally got to a few books that have been on my reading list for a long time: Someone at a DistanceHigh Rising, All Passion Spent, The House of Mirth.

Isn’t it wonderful that everyone doesn’t have the same favourite books? Isn’t it great that everyone loves different things?

For the last month the internet has been full of year-end reading lists, none of which look anything like mine (that’s a good thing). Here are some I enjoyed the most: Chicago Review of Book’s best fiction listLiterary Hub’s mega-listAustin Kleon’s reading year, and The Millions Year in Reading series. The one thing we will never ever have to worry about is running out of things to read.

Drawing Boxes Around Words: Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

Draft No. 4 - John McPheeJohn McPhee has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since the 1960s. His work has been collected in dozens of books. Draft No. 4 is a collection of his essays on the craft of writing.

I’ve never read any of his other work, and although I hear good things about it, I don’t have plans to read any of his other writing. So the fact that I finished Draft No. 4 is a testament to my love of books about writing.

I read Draft No. 4 in two chunks. After the first chapter and a half, I stalled due to boredom with the in-depth examples McPhee gives from his own work on subjects that didn’t interest me. I stalled for so long that my library copy expired, so I had to wait for it to become available again. I did, to my own surprise, want to finish it. When it renewed, though, I again delayed picking it up until it was again nearly due. So I finished the remainder in a few days.

I rarely read books that way, but then I usually abandon books that bore me partway through the second chapter. The book is worth sticking with to the end, though, if you have patience or make no bones about skimming the boring bits.

John McPhee’s genre is creative nonfiction, which is to say he finds an idea that interests him, goes out into the world and spends time with people to research that idea, and then comes home with lots of notes and puts together a long article about it. This is the kind of writing he focuses on in Draft No. 4. It’s not the kind of writing I do. 

There is a lot of value in this book for writers of nonfiction, especially regarding structure and the process of creating a piece of writing out of piles and piles of notes. Selfishly, however, I’m going to share the parts that were relevant to me. 

Getting started

On first drafts: “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? … At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.”

From a letter to his daughter when she had difficulty getting started on a writing assignment:

“For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.”

Priming the pump

On writing by hand: “Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are struck at any time — blocked to paralysis by an inability to set one word upon another — get away from the computer, lie down somewhere with pencil and pad, and think it over.”

On getting past writer’s block:

“What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

The insecure writer

On lacking confidence even after selling several pieces to The New Yorker: “You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”

On insecurity: “Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help.”

Competing with yourself

On the writer’s development: “No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”

On letting the reader do some of the work:

“The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader.”

The fourth draft

“After reading the second draft aloud,” McPhee writes, “and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose words and phrases in pencilled boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.”

Which reminds me of a practice Annie Dillard taught in her creative writing classes, as described by Alexander Chee, with the focus on verbs:

“We counted the verbs on the page, circled them, tallied the count for each page to the side and averaged them. Can you increase the average number of verbs per page, she asked. … Have you used the right verbs? Is that the precise verb for that precise thing? Remember that adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader.”

John McPhee goes beyond the verb in a process that, were I to follow it, would probably never end:

“You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one.” 

Dictionary, not thesaurus

We’ll finish with his excellent advice about using a dictionary instead of a thesaurus for draft no. 4. Searching for a synonym tends to result in complicated and uncommon words, whereas a dictionary, by giving the word’s meaning, will steer you in the direction of a stronger and more precise word. Better still, use a paper dictionary.

“Thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste,” McPhee writes. “Your destination is the dictionary.”

Additional reading

Wishing I Were John McPhee at Lithub. John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3 at the Paris Review. Who Can Afford to Write Like John McPhee? The Mind of John McPhee.

Reading in Bed Before Sleep

The light from the lamp casts no shadows. Your book is propped at the perfect angle. The pillows are fluffed just so under your shoulders and head. The sheets are freshly laundered. Is that a hint of lavender in the air? Rain patters at the window and on the street outside. The distant sound of car tires slicing through puddles reminds you of an early Tom Waits song. A mug of tea or a glass of whiskey is close by. Your arms won’t get tired and your foot won’t go numb. You are cozy in bed with a book and you want it to last forever.

“There’s an intimacy in bedtime reading,” Howard Jacobson writes at The Guardian, “that might have something to do with the pillows and the sheets, but is more about what happens when you move your eyes across a page.”

Reading Positions - Kate Beaton

By the amazing Kate Beaton

Somehow that intimacy isn’t the same when you’re staring at your phone instead of a book. Or the TV. Or your laptop with Netflix playing, your eyes unblinking.

“Words keep any reader busy any time, but you feel you’ve earned your sleep when you’ve wrestled with the angel of meaning at the end of a long day,” Jacobsen continues. Is sleep truly better after reading a book rather than indulging in any of the various other pleasures one might enjoy in that rare and enticing moment of respite between day and night?

How to read in bed

Pretend you don’t have a million other things to do. Convince yourself you didn’t promise to get so many things done today that you didn’t. Forget about that meeting first thing in the morning, that call you need to make before the end of business day in Europe or whatever.

Put on your pajamas and get into bed at 8pm. 9pm if that’s what you can manage. Earlier if you can. Have a single book handy — perhaps one you absolutely must finish today before you sleep — or a stack of books to graze through at your pleasure, dipping into them one at a time. Be prepared to drift off into a daydream or to forget yourself completely. Before you sleep you’ll forget you have a body. Perhaps you’ll convince yourself, for a little while, that you’re someone else.

I try to keep the phone away, but it can help to have it nearby to take a note or look up a reference. I am seized with an idea for a new or existing story while reading in bed more often than any other time or place. However, I am often shortly thereafter seized with a desire to cycle through my apps for some shiny new bit of information to distract me. So maybe I should leave my phone in the other room.

Reading with your eyes closed

The greatest risk, of course, is falling asleep. What’s the point of reading in bed when it’s holding you back from the rest you so damn well deserve? While there is something soothing about falling asleep over an open book, it’s embarrassing to wake up hours later with your glasses hanging off your face covered in drool and the light is still on. It’s hard to recover from a scene like that. You might as well give up before you even crack the cover if that’s how your night will go.

But sometimes it’s worthwhile. Sometimes you can fall asleep just gently enough to be aware that you’re asleep, to feel like you’re still reading. Many times I’ve continued some character’s adventure, some relationship conflict, some worrisome story problem behind closed eyes.

Ideally I come gradually and gracefully awake, check the clock, decide it’s time to turn out the light. But usually I wake with a jerk, realizing that I’d been rewriting the book as I slept, and try to pick up the thread. But inevitably it’s time to turn out the light.